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A Writer: Born or Made?

I’m not a hoarder. But some items are hard to give away. Books in particular. I try to limit new acquisitions to ebook format, but I do love the heft and character of a print edition. And as I spend a lot of hours gazing at the screen while working as a writer, it’s good to give my eyes a break when reading for pleasure. My house has multiple bookshelves in almost every room (the bathroom wouldn’t be kind to them.) My collection includes some precious old editions that belonged to my mother, among them The Golden Staircase: Poems for Children (1906), whose colour plates I remember vividly from childhood. The Golden Staircase contains such classics as Wordsworth’s Lucy Gray (who wandered out in a storm and was lost forever, but maybe still haunts the moors) and The Forsaken Merman by Matthew Arnold. Its dramatic illustration of the merman and his children reaching out from the waves for their lost human wife and mother is an old friend – when young, I could probably have recited the whole poem by heart. We were, and are, a family that values and enjoys reading.

I recently came upon a box of juvenilia: examples of my childhood writing, mostly in small lined exercise books. Some were written in pencil and are now faded beyond reading, but most are in pen and ink or typed neatly on a manual typewriter by my mother, who was always supportive of my efforts. So we have the story about killer robots, written at around age 8. It’s dramatic and bloody, but ends well when the practical kid saves the day. We have two adventures of Professor Frank Osborne, Naturalist, in which he firstly discovers prehistoric life in the fiords of New Zealand, and later goes on an expedition to Mars. The first story has a great conservation message. The second lacks scientific accuracy but I remember that my friends enjoyed it. That story, written when I was 11, includes not only a mad Russian scientist but a cat who stows away on the spaceship and has kittens during the voyage. After that, I suspect someone challenged me to write what I knew, as there’s a story about difficulties among school friends and another starring a pet rat (I had one at the time.)

The writing of slightly older Juliet reflects what I was reading at age 13-15: historical fiction by authors like Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease, along with myths and legends. I started experimenting with style and structure, sometimes quite well, sometimes not. It’s fascinating and salutory to revisit those early efforts. I see a nascent author there, and I remember how a story idea would grip me and refuse to let go until I got it down on the page. No wonder I had rather a limited social life as a teenager!

But then … I stopped. I didn’t do any creative writing from my mid-teens until my mid-forties. Instead I pursued a career in music, raised a family, made quite a few wrong turnings, and generally grew up a lot more. I kept on reading; fiction was a great solace and strengthener, especially when real life got too hard. I learned about being sad and angry and closed-up. There were many good parts, too. And eventually I started writing again. What drew me back to the craft? What made it possible after so long away?

Nurture came into play when nature was at a low ebb. For a long while I hadn’t believed in myself. But I made some radical changes in my everyday life, scary ones, and as a result I gained the emotional space to allow a story to sprout, take root, and grow into the beautiful thing it was destined to become. The process was gradual, but once I found the story I truly wanted to tell, that old magic awoke and I was able to complete what became my first published novel. What form did the nurture take? Several: being encouraged and supported to write as a child, growing up in a household where reading was valued, having access to excellent public library services – each helped build a future writer. At that time, the state school system in New Zealand was excellent and university education was free. Living in a university town provided exposure to a far broader range of cultural activities than would otherwise have been available. I never cease to be grateful for that solid foundation.

Every writer’s path is different. We’re all individuals. I remain aware of the many advantages I had. You don’t need a degree to become a novelist. But my education, from a solid foundation of grammar in primary school to Old English at university, not to speak of foreign languages and music, helped me enormously when I came back to writing after that long break. I had the tools of the trade; I knew how to write. And I’d been reading widely all through that period. I needed one more thing, something I’d had back in the days of Professor Osborne and the plesiosaur: the spark of creativity that exists deep in the spirit of a writer. The wonderful feeling of a story inside you that MUST be set down on the page. Some might call that the voice of the muse. I think of it as generations of storytelling forebears whispering in my ear. At my lowest point I thought that spark had died, but I was wrong. It was only waiting for the right time.

How have nature and nurture shaped your journey as a writer? Is a writer born or made, or maybe both? Do you have a stash of juvenilia?

About Juliet Marillier [1]

Juliet Marillier [2] has written twenty-four novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world and have won numerous awards. Juliet is currently working on a historical fantasy trilogy, Warrior Bards, of which the third book, A Song of Flight, will be published in August/September 2021. Her collection of reimagined fairy tales, Mother Thorn, will have a trade release in April 2021. Mother Thorn is illustrated by Kathleen Jennings and published by Serenity Press. When not writing, Juliet looks after Reggie, her elderly rescue dog.

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